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Dozens of asylum seekers arrive in Sanford, hoping to find emergency housing

Asylum seekers, many from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wait outside Sanford city hall on Monday, hoping to get an appointment with the General Assistance office. Dozens of new immigrants have arrived in Sanford in the last week, hoping to find assistance after shelters in larger cities, including Portland, have hit capacity.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Asylum seekers, many from Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, wait outside Sanford city hall on Monday, hoping to get an appointment with the General Assistance office. Dozens of new immigrants have arrived in Sanford in the last week, hoping to find assistance after shelters in larger cities, including Portland, have hit capacity.

Dozens of asylum seekers have arrived in Sanford in the past week seeking emergency shelter. But Sanford city officials say they’ve already run out of shelter space, and, alongside aid groups and local residents, are scrambling to support the new arrivals.

Maine Public’s refugee and immigration reporter Ari Snider was in Sanford on Monday and spoke with All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg about the situation.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Robbie Feinberg: So let’s start from the beginning. When did asylum seekers start arriving in Sanford?

Ari Snider: So aid groups like York County Community Action said they learned early last that a few families had arrived and were in need of shelter. Those first families were able to access General Assistance benefits and were placed in local motels. Families continued arriving last week and over the weekend and the central issue now is that city officials say they’ve maxed out currently available emergency shelter options.

Where are these new arrivals coming from, and why are they deciding to go to Sanford?

What I heard talking to asylum seeker families today is that it was entirely word of mouth. But this didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s important to understand the context here. Thousands of asylum seekers have arrived in the greater Portland area over the last several years. Portland has opened new shelter space and recently converted the Expo into a temporary shelter for asylum seekers, but those spaces have reached capacity.

Many of the asylum seekers I spoke with in Sanford said they arrived first in Portland. But with the shelters full, many – including families with children – said they had to sleep on the street. Somehow, word got out that Sanford was one place where you could find shelter, and the news spread rapidly just through word of mouth. From I what I heard, it does not seem to be part of any coordinated effort, just people who are really desperate for shelter trying to find it wherever they can.

And what are city officials saying?

Well, in a word, they say they don’t have any room left to shelter people. City manager Steven Buck said the city is “overwhelmed” and “completely tapped out.” I spoke with Buck for just a couple of minutes outside his office, before he went into a coordinating meeting with a number of other groups responding to the situation. But he said trying to coordinate a response is challenging because he said there’s just not enough housing.

"The coordination meeting is to further assess what our available resources are," he said. "That doesn't mean that there's more housing available here. So that's the number one factor, housing. That's the number one factor for everybody."

Families wait inside Sanford city hall on Monday for an appointment with the General Assistance office. City officials say Sanford is "overwhelmed" trying to meet demand.
Ari Snider
/
Maine Public
Families wait inside Sanford city hall on Monday for an appointment with the General Assistance office. City officials say Sanford is "overwhelmed" trying to meet demand.

And what do you hear from the people arriving in Sanford?

A number of different things. Many of these families are from Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other countries in Central Africa. Some told me they had reached the U.S. after making the dangerous journey overland across south and central America, only to find themselves sleeping on the street in Portland. Some of the families who have been placed in motel rooms said they are really grateful to have a roof over their head. One Angolan woman told me that she’s frustrated that she has to wait months to become eligible for a work permit under federal law, saying she would much rather be out working to support her family.

Others are still trying to get a roof over their head. At city hall I met a man named Simphor, from the central African country of Gabon. He told me he and his wife had arrived in Sanford the night before, after paying a local pastor in Portland to drive them there because, again, they heard through word of mouth they could get some assistance in Sanford.

But he said they ended up sleeping outside the Sanford city hall Sunday night, waiting for the morning.

Now, Simphor said he’s hoping to get help so he and his wife don’t have to sleep outdoors again tonight.

Sounds like a really intense situation. So what comes next?

It really is. Sanford has scheduled an emergency city council meeting for Tuesday night at 5pm, so we might learn more during that meeting.

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